Cumberland Island-Just You & the Birds

It  takes  some  effort  to  reach  this  barrier isle and national seashore at the southern end  of  the  Georgia coast,  practically  into Florida—unless you’ve got your own boat, you’ll  have  to  take  a  45-minute  ferry  ride from  St.  Mary’s.  Once  you  get  there,  you may  be  surprised  to  find  its  gleaming sands  deserted.  What  kind  of  a  national seashore is this?

But that’s all part of Cumberland Island’s subtle  charm.  Originally  a  cotton  plantation  and  then  a  summer  retreat  for  the Carnegies,  Cumberland  Island  has  been mostly uninhabited since 1972, with only a few private owners remaining in clustered compounds.  Over  the  years,  the  wilderness has gradually closed in, until the main road  through  the  interior  seems  a  mere tunnel  through  a  vinedraped  canopy  of  live oaks, cabbage palms, magnolia, holly, red  cedar,  and  pine.  Only  300  people  are allowed  on  the  island  at  any  given  time, many  of  them  overnight  guests  at  the island’s  only  lodging,  the  stately  turn-of-the-century  Greyfield  Inn. (There  are  also  two  bare-bones  campgrounds  for  visitors  who  prefer  roughing it.)  Although  the  island  has  a  few  historic sites—a restored Carnegie mansion, a tiny African-American    meetinghouse—most visitors  tend  to  be  nature  lovers,  fond  of hiking  (there  are  over  50  miles/81km  of hiking  trails),  bicycling  along  the  old  car-riage  roads  (rent  bikes  at  the  Sea  Camp Dock),  and  kayaking  through  the  silent salt marshes.

Cumberland’s    sloping    16-mile-long (26km)  beach  isn’t  just  a  bland  strip  of powdery   sand,   like   some   manicured oceanfront  resort.  Little  meadows  nestle among the dunes, creeks cut their way to the  sea  from  freshwater  ponds,  and  tidal mud  flats  glisten.  The  beach  runs  the entire length of the island, affording plenty of space for beachgoers to find their own patch of secluded sand. It’s not a place to come for high-octane watersports, but the shell hunting is superb, especially early in the morning after a storm. The waters are relatively shallow and calm for swimming, although  there  are  no  lifeguards.  Nor  are there  snack  bars,  showers,  or  changing rooms—it’s just you, the sand, and a wideopen sky.

In late spring and summer, in fact, birds far  outnumber  humans  on  Cumberland Island. Bring your binoculars, because this is  a  major  destination  on  the  Atlantic  flyway, with more than 335 species showing up throughout the year to nest on the tidal flats or build their nests behind the dunes. (Please respect cordoned-off beach areas in season.) Inland you’ll also find alligators, armadillos,  raccoons,  deer,  wild  turkeys, and  loggerhead  turtles,  as  well  as  a  herd of nearly 300 wild horses that graze on the marsh grasses.

Those who return to Cumberland Island year  after  year  do  so  for  its  unhurried pace, a lifestyle attuned to the rhythms of nature.  It’s  not  a  place  to  visit  in  a  hurry, barging  in  and  then  charging  out.  Give yourself  a  day  or  two  to  slow  down, breathe the salt air, and get sand between your toes—you’ll be glad you did.